Friday, December 14, 2012

Not Enough Bubble Wrap in the World

This is not a post I want to write, yet I feel I must. It is impossible to be a parent, make that a human being, and not be touched by the tragedy today in Connecticut. Most of the victims were young children. I am sick down deep in the pit of my stomach, laden with sorrow as I can only imagine the anguish of those living through a parent's worst nightmare. There are twenty tiny beds that will not be slept in again, presents that will go unopened, futures of bright-eyed, innocent children that will never be realized. In the aftermath of today's tragedy, there will be political jockeying about gun control and mental illness, none of which will ease the pain of the families who have lost children and other loved ones. As parents we hug our kids tighter, tell them we love them a billion more times than usual and question the world in which we live.

Growing up I do not recall being afraid to go to school thinking some madman might show up and shoot everyone in sight. My biggest fears were somehow embarrassing myself or having a run-in with the school bully. Perhaps my parents worried and didn't tell us, but I don't think so. Something has changed in our society over the last quarter century, and not for the better. Today brings those feelings of fear and uneasiness to the forefront again, those feelings we try to push back deep in our minds, wondering each and every day if this is the day it will happen here

It seems there should be no safer place in this world than a kindergarten classroom. We should only be worried about our kids running with scissors or eating too much paste or  getting called a name.  But the reality is,  every day  that
we drop them off, we live with that quiet lurking fear... what if? What if someone here loses it? It happened in Litttleton, Colorado, it happened in Paducah, Kentucky, it happened at Virginia Tech in Blackburg, it happened in Tucson, Arizona, it happened again in Colorado, this time in Aurora, and it happened earlier this week in Happy Valley, Oregon for crying out loud... Happy Valley, of all places. And now, Newtown, Connecticut. None of us ever wants to believe it can happen here, but it can and it does and all too often. Mental illness knows no boundaries.

All of this takes my memories racing back to Littleton, Colorado in April, 1999. My boys were both in preschool at the time, and I was pregnant with my daughter. I remember the feeling of wanting to swathe my kids in bubble wrap and protect them from the evils of the world. When fall arrived and it was time to drop my son off at that big, scary elementary school, I remember my feeling of uneasiness, knowing that he was out of my sight, out of my hands, out of my immediate protection, yet knowing I had to let him go. Life marches forward and we can't hide from it or take refuge from the 'what-ifs.' 

Then just a little more than two years later, 9/11 occurred. Once again, that feeling of uneasiness and fear crept back into my bones. I had just stepped back into the house after seeing the boys off on the school bus when the breaking news of a plane crash at the World Trade Center was being reported. As I stood their, motionless, watching the scene unfold and trying to make sense of what was being said, I watched the second plane hit the second tower. I felt physically ill. I remember wanting to jump in the car and go get my kids. My mind raced as I realized this was no accident. Ultimately, I decided to leave them at school, but it was not an easy decision to make. I wondered if there was anywhere that was safe. There are no guarantees in life, that is for certain, but wouldn't it be nice if we could dial down the violence?

Understanding violence is a much deeper issue, and it seems to have its roots in our childhood. If we aren't taught as children how to feel, respond to and defend against our own pain, we are much more likely to strike out and be violent with others or be violent with ourselves. In the case of today's tragedy it appears both of these situations occurred. As our world population grows larger and the pressures of modern society grow greater, that sense of fear and uneasiness is festering within me. I sometimes question the sanity of bringing children into this world, and I wonder what kind of a world my kids will face when they are parents. Then again, I can't imagine this world without my kids. I better get over to the office supply store, I think there is going to be a run on bubble wrap this weekend.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Taxing My Nerves

Where do I even begin? Somebody has to be joking, right? Our government in action never ceases to amaze me. People never cease to amaze me. How is it possible that this is even a headline?
"St. Louis County Tax Collector Owes Personal Property Taxes"
Before you react, you must realize that this woman was JUST hired; this isn't a matter of employers not keeping up to date on current employees, this is a matter of employers not doing proper checks on potential employees BEFORE hiring. Make that government employers.

The person just hired by St. Louis County to supervise the collection of real estate and personal property taxes has not paid her personal property taxes since 2008, nor has her husband. And, they filed for bankruptcy last year. Can you imagine? That is - plain and simple - wrong. If I were to receive an unpaid notice from her, I'd be furious. 

But will she be let go now that her 'secret' has been discovered? It does not appear so. Director of Revenue Eugene Leung, who checked her real estate tax records but not her personal property taxes or financial standing before hiring her, claims “knowing what I know now, she’s still the most qualified person for the job.” Seriously?

I'd like to know who else applied. Jobs are still scarce, and there are plenty of folks with extensive financial backgrounds looking for work. I find it hard to believe there aren't other more qualified individuals out there. Did they not apply or were they overlooked? 

And what I find particularly flabbergasting is that this woman had the nerve to apply for the job in the first place. I occasionally don't manage to return my books to the library right on time and have incurred some minor fines over the years. In my defense, I view this as my civic duty - it helps fund the purchase of new books after all, right?!!! I always pay my fines immediately, but in the back of my mind, I wouldn't even have the guts to apply for a job at the library. I would assume they would check my track record and not want to hire someone who didn't always return materials when they were due. She must be laughing all the way to the bank. Maybe I need to rethink my whole job search approach.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Earlier this week I attended a one-act play, “Talley’s Folly” written by American playwright Lanford Wilson. There were two actors and one set. The play lasted just over 90 minutes without an intermission. The theater was small and intimate, seating no more than 100 people. The actors were so close at times you could nearly reach out and touch them. In such a small venue the story came to life more than any other play I've attended in larger theaters. It reminded me of my childhood, watching Mr. Rogers or Romper Room, and truly believing I was right there with the hosts, believing they were speaking directly to me and me alone. The audience members sighed, chuckled and gasped at the same moments, and you could see and feel the effect of the immediate feedback on the actors.  

The story itself was a very personal dialog between the two characters, Matt and Sally, and at times I felt as if I were intruding on their conversation, and that none of us should be there listening and watching. The play is a somewhat complicated
tale of love that ultimately leads to marriage, with each of the two characters sharing their innermost and longest held secrets and their greatest fears. At one point Matt lamented how afraid we are to share our personal stories, afraid we will crack like an egg if we do, and afraid the damage may be irreparable.  As a result, many of us live too guarded, not wanting to be ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ not wanting to risk getting hurt from a fall. Yet, if we stay hidden behind our protective shells and don’t take the risk of trusting another with our heart then we really aren't living at all.

The protective eggshell is a good analogy. I think it is human nature to be protective and build an outer shell, allowing very few people, if any, into one's inner sanctum.  Over the course of our lives as small hurts are hurled at us, we build up our shell a little at a time with each event –  a name calling on the playground, a criticism from a parent, a slight by a friend, a rejection, a passing
judgment, the list is endless. We build up our shell to insulate ourselves from future hurts, but in the process we also limit ourselves to the joys life can bring through our relationships if we become too protective. The challenge we all face is mastering the egg balancing act, taking the risk and climbing up on that wall, and not being afraid to be ourselves, imperfections and all. Perhaps it’s not so bad to be half-cracked!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Brussels Sprouts: Poor Misunderstood Mini-Cabbages

Brussels sprouts, those poor, little, smelly, misunderstood mini cabbages. Why are they hated so? They are part of a prodigious family of vegetables from the cabbage patch including kale, broccoli, collard greens, radishes, cauliflower, kholrabi, mustard greens, turnips and more. It seems every new generation of kids is forced to eat them at some point during their childhood, seemingly as a form of punishment. 

There is even a a bestselling English Christmas story, The Smelly Sprout by Allan Plenderleith, about a Brussels sprout who is tossed out in the snow on Christmas day, and then rejected by a Christmas tree, a snowman, and a fox, before finding a home for the holiday.

If you've ever wondered whether this vegetable shares its name with Brussels, Belgium by chance or by design, it is no coincidence. While it is believed they first made  an appearance  in our  diet during  Roman times,  by the late  16th century
they were being cultivated in large quantities in Belgium, hence their name. By the 1800s they were introduced in the U.S. The central coast of California provides the majority of  the 70 million pounds of annual domestic production during the June through January season. Britain's production is about six times that amount. Brussels sprouts are also exported to Canada where they are more popular than they are here at home.

Growing up I loved vegetables with only a few exceptions. I particularly was not a fan of Brussels sprouts, lima beans or parsnips. When I'd see Brussel sprouts on the dinner table as a kid I'd scrunch my nose. They were always served boiled or steamed and were mushy. They had little flavor other than a tinge of bitterness, sorry mom. As an adult I'd scrunch my nose at them in the grocery store as well. And then one day while 'chasing squirrels on the webbernet' I came across a recipe for Brussels sprouts with the most delectable sounding description - "like vegetable baklava" - I just had to give them one more chance. They are now one of my ABSOLUTE favorite vegetables, and even two of my three kids eat them, willingly.

So what is the secret to my new found love? Roasting them! I cut them in half, lay them face up in a baking pan, drizzle them in olive oil or melted butter, and coat them in whatever spices suit my mood, whether it be garlic, salt and pepper, or a creole seasoning (Tony Chachere's is my favorite). Then I roast them at 425 for 20-25 minutes. The outer shell becomes crunchy, and they melt in your mouth, just like baklava. Tip - shave just the slightest bit off the outside on opposite sides before halving the sprouts and they will lay nice and flat in your pan without rolling to the sides.

Now, if only I can find a way to stop 'hatin' on the poor misunderstood parsnip! Anyone have a great recipe?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Author the Grouch

I say it all the time, don't judge another until you've walked in their shoes. That being said, I also believe there are times in our lives that no matter what we are dealing with on the inside, we need to put on our happy face on the outside, at least for the moment. And when our livelihood depends on it, it becomes even more important.

What sparks this comment? There was a book signing at a local bookstore this past week. The author writes fantasy novels aimed at the young reader. The parking lot was packed. The line for autographs serpentined through the store. I would guess there were nearly 300 fans anxiously awaiting their moment to meet the author they revered. I made my way along the line as an observer to see who all the fuss was about. A young man in his early 30s was seated at the table. He seemed to be in an unpleasant mood. He was not smiling. He was barely speaking, mostly just harumphing. The youngster who had just received his autograph stepped away. Two young girls around the ages of 8 and 10 were next. They were clearly excited to meet the man behind the table. He barely looked up; hardly acknowledged their presence.

After each of the copies of the books the girls were holding were signed, their father asked if they could have their picture taken with the author. He didn't look up nor respond to the request. Knowing it was important to his girls, the father asked a second time. Seemingly unheard, he pressed his luck and asked a third. The grouch behind the table finally grunted and nodded his head slightly. The girls moved around the table and stood on either side of him. The father asked if everyone was ready. The girls beamed; the author could barely muster a scowl. What will they remember from their encounter when they share the photo with friends and family?

I walked away wondering to myself what his deal was. Was he having a bad day? Had he just received some awful news? Was he on this book signing tour against his will? Does he simply not like interacting with his readers? Were his shoes too tight? What would make him behave like such a grouch towards his fans? I suppose I may never know, but I couldn't help thinking how short-sighted his attitude. If I were a fan, an interaction like that would probably have me reconsidering my interest in purchasing any future publications. As one who day dreams about being a real writer someday, I can't imagine having anything other than a great sense of gratitude for everyone in that line, for if it weren't for them, my career would not exist. 

Children are impressionable and often have a rose-colored view of the world until someone shatters their fantasy. As he is a writer of fantasy, I couldn't help but be baffled by the alienation he was creating for these young readers, and maybe even future authors. I believe he needed to put on a happy, professional face no matter how tight his shoes may have been. And if he wasn't able to do that, perhaps he should have "scrammed" until he was less grouchy.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Not a Kodak Moment

Call it sensationalism or call it irresponsible journalism, either way I am appalled. I'm sure you've all heard about and likely seen the image and headline from today's New York Post: “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die... DOOMED," and he was. Ki Suk Han, a 58 year old husband and father from Queens, NY, was fatally struck.

The image is haunting. It's hard to look at it and not imagine the fear he must have felt. It makes me sick to my stomach. As awful as the story is, I don't disagree with it being published. What I disagree with is the publishing of the picture, and I'm far from alone; outrage spread across the internet today condemning the paper, and the photographer. 

Can you imagine how his wife and child must feel, seeing their loved one in that awful and terrifying final moment, and wondering why no one tried to help him? The photographer claims he was rushing toward the train, rapidly firing his flash in an attempt to alert the train engineer. Really? I've never operated a subway, but I've ridden on them plenty of times. There are all kinds of sparks and flashes in those tunnels and stations; it doesn't stand to reason that a camera flash would have much effect on the engineer's attention other than to catch his eye perhaps. Someone yelling and screaming and waving their arms up and down in the air like a crazy person would likely have been more effective. At the speeds those trains travel, however, it's unlikely the engineer would have been able to stop in time even if the flash had alerted him.
I don't want to unfairly judge the photographer for not rushing to try and pull the man back up on the platform, I wasn't there. There were others in the station as well. Were any of them near enough and able to try to help save him? Until we individually face that defining moment and discover whether we are the 'fight' or 'flight' type, how can any of us judge someone from afar? 

While we may never know exactly what the photographer was thinking, we do know he was aware the man was in jeopardy. He was in the right place to take the picture, and likely he took several if he was rapidly firing his flash. He isn't just some random tourist or photo hobbyist either, he is a freelance New York Post photographer. And the picture is pretty well framed and focused, don't you think? Almost to perfectly if you ask me. I, along with others, believe that the photographer was morally bound to help the victim, if he was able to do so rather than get the picture. 

Once back at the office, there had to be a meeting of the editorial staff. A decision had to be made to run the story and publish the picture, on the front cover, and full page. Wow! How do you make a decision like that? Who makes a decision like that? What goes through your mind? Were the staff giddy with excitement? Given the reputation of that paper, I can only imagine they were. 

In reponse to the outcry that the decision was classless, cruel and lacked integrity, Marc Cooper, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said many people 'rushed to judgment without a full understanding of the facts.' I don't think anyone has rushed to judgment. This was classless, cruel and lacks all integrity. What do you think?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Speak Well, It'll Do You Good

Growing up my mother was constantly correcting my grammar. It didn't matter if we were at the dinner table, in the car, or... horrors... out in public. I had a few bad grammar habits that were like fingernails on a chalkboard for her and she was going to fix me if it was the last thing she did! The bad habit of mine that took her the longest to break was my use of "these ones." For instance, if I saw something I liked and said "I like these ones," she'd visibly cringe and correct me - "I like these" or "I like this one." It took me years to understand the linguistic difference and get it right!

My children now suffer the same fate; no surprise there, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree! They have two habits that gnaw on my nerves. The first is when they confuse "I" and "me." For example, "Me and Joe are going to the show and..."
Gah!!! "Joe and I... JOE - AND - I," I correct them emphatically mid-sentence, and they start over and say it properly. I've grown so used to hearing them say it wrong, that occasionally I will correct them when they are right. For example, "That same thing happened to Joe and me." I'll holler "Joe and I" and then I see the wheels turning in their mind, and that sly smile they get when they realize they were right and I was wrong! I readily acknowledge my error, but relish that it got them thinking. ; )

My biggest grammatical pet peeve, however, is what linguists call the "quotative 'like'." That drives me absolutely bonkers. In fact, I find it hard to even listen to what someone is saying when the word 'like' is dropped into the conversation every fifth word or so. 
"I was like walking to like the corner store and like I saw this guy and I was like, oh, like he was like so cute. He was like 'Hey...' and I was like 'Hey,' and like so embarrassed. Like I didn't know like what to say or like what to do. I like just ran inside and like started like looking at like all the candy."
Honestly, at these moments I have no idea what the kid said; I'm too busy clinging to the ceiling from my fingernails and trying not to fall (thanks mom!). I'll get right in the middle of their story too. "You were 'like' walking? Does that mean you were doing something that looked like walking, but not actually walking? Were you skipping? Were you hop-walking? What were you doing? How did you get there exactly?" --- "Like the corner store? Was it not actually the corner store? Did you go somewhere different? Didn't we agree on the corner store? Was the store just a holograph?" --- It drives them crazy when I do this, and I inform them at least we are even in that case!

I believe that speaking well (oh that is another one, confusing "well" and "good", but I digress) is important. First impressions are often lasting impressions and they are formed not only by how we look, but how we speak. As a parent, it is my responsibility to teach my children to put their best foot forward. I know they find it
annoying to be corrected, I did too, but someday they will appreciate it. I know I appreciate the gift my mother gave me and someday my kids will thank grandma, and me, as well.

P.S. I just recalled the time my mother sent a note back to one of my high school teachers who noted I was "doing good" in her class. The teacher did not appreciate the correction! Ha ha ha, oh the memories, love you Mom!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Cream of the Crop

English has its roots in the Germanic languages, yet today it is not even a shadow of its former self. Over the course of history, it has been transformed dramatically through invasion, colonization and social and cultural change. Today, English continues to be in a constant state of flux, as are all languages. The only languages not in perpetual flux are dead languages. It's simply the nature of language. Language changes as our society and culture changes. There are many reasons for this, but I'm by no means an expert on the subject, and I won't try to be. There are plenty of great articles on the topic already.

I am often struck by just how much our language has changed when reading the classics. Shakespeare can be very challenging to read, sometimes even seemingly foreign, yet that was the way people spoke at the time; well the language any way, not the poetic verse! Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain are undeniably some of the greatest writers of the 19th century. Their writing is easier to read, yet in the century plus that has passed since their pens flowed, it still takes a bit more effort to fully comprehend them today than it would have during their era. Contemporary writers such as Stephen King, J.K.Rowling and John Grisham are understood in an instant because they write in the same language we speak.

I'm often fascinated by and drawn into the debate as to whether the English language is changing for the worse. I would have to say no, I don't think so. It's not the language that is at issue, but rather it's usage; grammatical abuse in particular. Funny thing is, Shakespeare, Poe, Austen and the myriad of great writers over the centuries have had their critics too. Geoffrey Nunberg put it best when he said in 1983, 
"Our picture of the English of previous centuries, after all, has been formed on the basis of a careful seletion of the best that was said and thought back then; their hacks and bureaucrats are mercifully silent now."
Yes, we abuse grammar, but every generation has done the same. Hopefully the 'careful selection' of English we leave behind for future generations will make us look good too. Only the cream of the crop!

P.S. I started this post intent on lamenting over what linguists call the "quotative like," attributable to the Valley Girl population in the 80s. However, I ended up 'like' chasing a squirrel, 'like, you know? I'll get back to my original rant, er post, tomorrow!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

To Ban or Not To Ban?

On the heels of my last post, I have to bemoan yet another ban. This ban by the Consumer Product Safety Commission on a fun and creative toy called Buckyballs (a.k.a. Neocubes) claims the product is defective. The product is not defective, it works just fine. Buckyballs are 5mm magnetic balls sold in sets that can be manipulated into an amazing array of shapes and patterns. The toy is marketed to adults, not children, as an office toy / stress reliever. However, if swallowed, they can be dangerous as the magnetic beads can stick together pinching tissue and perforating the lining of the small intestine.

I never want to see a child harmed, but at the same time I don't think it's right that
a product should be banned because it is used improperly, such as being swallowed or used in ways other than intended. Buckyballs are aimed at adults and come with plenty of warnings that they should be kept away from children. And there are countless other products that should be kept away from children for their safety as well. Little children put things in their mouth, and as parents it's our responsibility to make sure they don't have access to dangerous products. We can't let them have toys with parts small enough to choke on. We need to be sure they can't get to guns, knives, tools, or poisonous plants such as azaleas, poinsettias, daffodils, or mistletoe. We need to keep medicines, cleaning products, alcohol and other poisons out of reach and locked up. The list goes on and on. 

The world is not a safe place and danger lurks around every corner. If we banned every product that is potentially dangerous what will we be left with? Should we ban cars? How many deaths are attributed to automotive accidents each 
year? Should we ban products made of glass which is dangerous when broken?  How about the top ten most often choked on foods? Should we ban hot dogs, popcorn, marshmallows, grapes, nuts, carrots, candy, gum, apples and peanut butter? More than 2800 people choke to death each year on food and other small objects. 

Maybe we should mandate that all corners in our homes and on our furniture be rounded. Fireplaces would need to go. And what about toilets since those have enough water in the bowl to drown a child? All handheld appliances have the risk of causing electrocution. A metal object poked into an electric outlet can be the end of a small child. In fact, electricity itself should be illegal, it's very dangerous and accounts for approximately 1000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Dogs can bite. Bookcases can topple. Clothes can strangle. 

Does this list seem ridiculous? Is it any more ridiculous than banning Buckyballs? Where does the madness end and personal responsibility begin? Why should the error in judgment of a few spoil the fun for the many? Banning dangerous products and regulating the safety of others that are marketed at children is important, such as ensuring painted toys are lead-free. I never want to see a child harmed, but I also don't think that we should ban things because they are used improperly. We haven't banned balloons and those are most definitely targeted at children and a huge choking hazard. Perhaps we should. What do you think?